A Nebraska Model: Mental Health Training for School Resource Officers
Lincoln Public Schools implemented an adolescent behavioral health training program for school resource officers that is designed to improve response to students experiencing mental health crises.
The National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center
When people hear the term “beta test,” they think of something that’s still in a development stage. But in the Nebraska law enforcement community, BETA has a different meeting: BEhavioral Threat Assessment, a training program that helps law enforcement officers learn better ways to handle individuals experiencing mental health crises. And, Lincoln Public Schools is incorporating a version of this into training for its recently hired middle school SROs.
The full BETA program lasts four days, one day covering responding to mental health crises; another on directed violence; a third on a specific timely issue, such as addiction or dealing with the elderly; and the fourth on the options available for getting help for individuals. The Nebraska Division of Behavioral Health, which provides the training free of charge to law enforcement officers, also offers “mini-BETAs” around the state for officers who can’t commit to four days of training away from their agencies.
One of these mini-BETAs brought training specific to adolescent mental health to the six school resource officers hired to work in Lincoln’s 12 middle schools. The six SROs were hired as a part of a comprehensive program of community support for schools established through a collaboration between the City of Lincoln and Lincoln Public Schools, including after-school programming and mental health services, in the aftermath of the February 2018 shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla.
Joseph Wright, Director of Security for Lincoln Public Schools and a former captain with the Lincoln Police Department, emphasizes the importance of not criminalizing behavior for which students need help and assistance. The Lincoln Police Department and Lincoln Public Schools brought the officers on board quickly because of community backing, but still wanted them to receive appropriate training from the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) as well as the more specific local training.
We want to have a clear differentiation between school discipline and law enforcement action, and ensure the SROs don’t get involved in school discipline,” Wright says. “And we don’t want to criminalize behavior for which students need to receive help. Having mental health issues is not the same as being dangerous.”
In order to help the SROs make that distinction, their mini-BETA spent a half-day focusing on adolescent behavior and mental health, and the second half on dealing with individuals who are genuine threats to commit directed violence. Only as an example, Wright likens it to distinguishing between a frustrated autistic child who says he’s going to kill the classmates who have upset him, and a student who actually has access to weapons, makes a plan and intends to carry out an attack. He hopes the SRO training has the same positive benefits that the full BETA training has had at the state level.
We get better outcomes overall because we teach officers not to automatically take people with mental illness into custody, but instead to get them to the resources that they need,” Wright says. “One of the things we do during training is bring in individuals who had encounters with law enforcement when they were in crisis, but who are now in recovery. Cops are very experiential learners. We can talk all the theory we want, but when we put someone like this in front of them, they connect.
Wright, who also taught courses at the Nebraska Law Enforcement Training Center on mental health, helped develop BETA training with Division of Behavioral Health staff, before retiring and moving to Lincoln Public Schools 10 years ago. From his position with the state’s second largest school district (42,000 students, 60 schools), he worked with Dr. Mario Scalora to create the district threat assessment program. In addition to working with Dr. Scalora, Wright also belongs to and works with the Great Plains Chapter of the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals (ATAP). His presentation for the association’s 2019 Winter Conference focuses on how Lincoln has implemented its program, and how the program connects to the Lincoln Police Department and the community. His team focuses on assessing threats, creating safety plans for affected employees, students and parents, and moving everyone involved to a safer place.
"Prevention is hard to measure, but so far, so good. After Parkland, the community reacted very strongly. In addition to our placing the SROs in the middle schools, Lincoln PD added a threat assessment investigator who focuses on school-related cases,” Wright says. “On my team, the threat coordinator became a full-time position and we added a high-end social worker to provide planning and support to students that need help and the resources they need who are connected to threat management cases. We’ve really tried to flesh out the community response. Our whole model won’t necessarily work for every school district, but some parts of it might. There are no boilerplate programs that will work everywhere, but schools can still maintain best practices and adapt them to their unique district.”